Tuesday 23 July 2013

Movie Review: 55 Days At Peking (1963)

A historical drama chronicling the siege of the foreign compound at the time of the Boxer Rebellion, 55 Days At Peking is a rousing epic, combining commanding action with compelling characters and potent politics.

It's the year 1900, and foreign powers are busy carving up China's natural resources, each nation backed by it's own small troop detachment protecting the diplomats in Peking's International Legations compound. The experienced and wily Sir Arthur Robinson (David Niven) leads England's diplomatic mission, and is the defacto leader of the compound. Major Matt Lewis (Charlton Heston) arrives as the head of a Marine force to bolster the US presence. There are also Russian, German, Spanish, French, Italian, Japanese and Austrian contingents. Lewis is immediately attracted to the sultry Baroness Natalie Ivanoff (Ava Gardner), who is hanging around the Russian delegation. But her fellow-nationals are cold and almost hostile towards her, for reasons not immediately clear to Lewis.

Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi (Flora Robson) is powerless to stop the foreign asset grab, but her nationalistic senior adviser fans the flames of the Boxer Rebellion, a seemingly spontaneous and violent uprising against the foreigners by mysterious elements of Chinese society. With the tacit support of the government, the Boxers are emboldened and the rebellion spreads. When Sir Arthur convinces all the other foreign powers to ignore a final warning to leave China, the International Legations compound is surrounded by the Boxers and placed under siege. As supplies of medicine and ammunition run out, the few hundred foreign troops have to fend off thousands of Boxer attackers, while hoping that a relief army can fight its way to Peking and lift the siege.

Strongly grounded in the real events of 1900 but featuring mostly fictional characters (who may have been inspired by real-life counterparts), 55 Days At Peking is a reflection of the politics of the day, with western powers convinced of their superiority and moral rights to control China's resources, and the Chinese rulers too weak to offer much in the way of resistance either at the negotiating table or on the battlefield. Notwithstanding the colonial context, the film is at its best in recreating an example of rare international cooperation towards a common purpose.

55 Days At Peking was the last full-length feature film directed by Nicholas Ray. By now drowning in alcohol and frazzled by drugs, he needed the help of uncredited co-directors Andrew Marton and Guy Green to complete the movie. Nevertheless, the result is grand entertainment in sumptuous colours, the Samuel Bronston production recreating the spectacle of a tense international siege without losing sight of key characters at the heart of the conflict.

The film comfortably moves between elaborate banquet halls hosting large parties for Peking's elite, the threateningly dark throne hall of the Empress, backrooms where foreign diplomats squabble and make history-altering decisions, the milling streets of Peking (recreated on the outskirts of Madrid), elaborate scenes of battle with thousands of extras, tense conversations between soldiers debating the purpose of their mission, and one well-executed commando raid. The 150 minutes of running time are effortlessly consumed.

Gardner, just 41 years old in 1963 but looking at least 10 years older, never convinces in her role as the Baroness. Not sexy enough, not glamorous enough, and when the going gets tough, not comfortable enough caring for the wounded, she is the one annoying element in the film.

Much better are Charlton Heston and, particularly, David Niven. While Heston delivers his dependable, resilient, lead-from-the-front, no-nonsense hero in Major Matt Lewis, Niven shines as the statesman Sir Arthur. Conveying an intellect several steps ahead of both his friends and his foes, Niven's Sir Arthur is the perfect ambassador for the British Empire, stoic, resourceful, diplomatic, and with an unmistakable glint in his eye hinting at the ability to deploy sharp connivance as needed.

Wars are fought by soldiers, but it is diplomats who have to win the peace. In 55 Days At Peking Sir Arthur is a diplomat with the inner steel of a soldier, a formidable man thrust into an extraordinary circumstance.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

No comments:

Post a Comment

We welcome reader comments about this post.